Diplomacy: High anxiety, low expectations

For Israel and the Palestinians, success at Annapolis may spell trouble on the home front.

Olmert 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
How low are expectations of anything significant coming out of next week's conference in Annapolis? So low, that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in Sharm e-Sheikh Tuesday that one cannot talk about possible failure at Annapolis because its existence is itself an achievement. "I think that the Annapolis meeting cannot fail for the simple fact that its very taking place is a success," he said at a press conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "The fact that one of the most important leaders of the world, certainly the leader of such an important Arab country, President Mubarak, is backing and encouraging the Annapolis meeting is proof of the success of its being held." In other words, all the parties have to do is get to Annapolis safe and sound for it to be deemed a triumph - a definition that gives new meaning to the term "low expectations." The conference, Olmert told visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Sunday, is nothing but the launching of "negotiations that have not been held for seven years, with dozens of countries attending and in front of the entire world. The goal of the Annapolis meeting is to create international support for the bilateral process that will be between us and the Palestinians." Olmert made clear that in his view the fact that the conference is taking place and will launch a negotiation process is itself a victory. Everything else is gravy. THE AMERICANS, however, seem to see things differently. President George W. Bush needs more from the long-awaited and oft-discussed event than just the launching of negotiations. He needs the conference to show the Arab world that progress is being made on the Israeli-Palestinian track, so that the Arab countries at the summit will coalesce and deal with the other more pressing problems in the region: Iran, for instance, and the spread of Shi'ite extremism. Bush's game plan is that signaling real progress will cement together a coalition of "moderate" states and harness them behind backing sanctions against Iran. The feeling is that if he can just create a positive atmosphere in Annapolis, that would to a large extent pull the rug out from under the feet of the Iranians. For the sanctions against Iran to work, for the ayatollahs in Teheran to feel truly isolated, they need to be cut off from the 21 Arab and Moslem countries who have been invited to attend the conference. In this regard, then, success is more than just the meeting itself. Success is a feeling among those states that something is moving, that the US is serious about pushing forward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, that Washington is back in the saddle and that it is worth their while to join hands with the Bush administration. As to why they would want to cooperate with Bush at this late, lame-duck stage in his presidency, the answer is that they are so afraid of Iran and extremism and terrorism in their own midst that they see it as in their own interests to do so. However, failure next week to signal something different on the Israeli-Palestinian track could lead to a failure to solidify a moderate Arab coalition. This could hurt the chances of sanctions ever really being effective and actually increase the likelihood that some kind of military action might be needed to stop the Iranian nuclear march. Over the last two months various Palestinian spokesmen have warned that failure at Annapolis would lead to yet another round of violence, a third intifada. Israeli officials, including Chief of General General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Ashkenazi, however, are skeptical, saying that the Palestinians have been badly weakened by the last seven years, are suffering from deep division and could not wage another terrorist war right now, even if they wanted to. The Annapolis conference, seen in this context, is about much more than just Israel and the Palestinians. Failure could open the door wide not for more Palestinian violence, but for the need to take military action against Iran. ONE OF the paradoxes of the conference is that the principals - Israel and the PA - seem to be going largely because they don't want to be blamed for failure. However, success - defined as an agreement setting up two states based on deep Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank - could mean problems for each party at home. For instance, assume the conference launches a negotiating process that leads to an agreement calling for a withdrawal to roughly the 1967 borders, including concessions on Jerusalem, with a further swap of territory to be worked out to enable Israel to hold on to the large settlement blocs. That type of "success" could very well cost Olmert his government, since Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and renegade Kadima MKS have indicated that this is not something they would countenance, at least not now. PA President Mahmoud Abbas is in a similar boat. Success in Annapolis would have to entail compromises on the so-called "right of return," a compromise of a cardinal Palestinian issue that would deepen the already deep rift between him and Hamas and make it downright impossible for him to ever reexert PA control over Gaza, or even over large swaths of the West Bank. The danger of success is also relevant regarding states like Saudi Arabia. For success of the whole process would entail a public Saudi recognition of Israel, a move that could stir a hornets nest among the Islamic fundamentalists within Saudi Arabia unwilling to accept such recognition and pose a serious threat to the House of Saud's very survivability. Afraid to be blamed for failure, yet concerned about the price of success, it is likely that the parties will attend safe in the knowledge that nothing will probably come of the whole process. It is telling that, according to a report this week in Haaretz, an Israeli comment on the concluding paragraph in the draft joint document to be declared at Annapolis reads, "Note: Outstanding question for consideration - how to address the situation in Gaza in the document." Forget about the document. The outstanding question for consideration is how to address the situation in Gaza on the ground, not in the document. Defense Minister Ehud Barak made clear in a radio interview Thursday that Israel would not implement any agreement until the first part of the road map that calls for dismantling the terrorist infrastructure takes place in Gaza, not only in the West Bank. Considering Abbas's inability to control even the West Bank which is ostensibly under his sovereignty, good luck in Gaza. Yet Olmert is adamant on going to Annapolis. Not only is he going, Israel, as he said in Sharm, is pushing the meeting forward. Why? To a large extent, it seems because he wants to satisfy Bush. It's almost as if he is saying to the US president, "You want me to come, I'll come; you want me to make gestures, I'll make them." It also seems that he feels he can do this safe in the knowledge that when crunch time comes, and the Palestinians will have to implement their part of the bargain, they will unlikely be able to do so. One of the people Olmert is taking with him to Annapolis is Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has his own experience in similar situations. Barak intimated to the cabinet this week that he knew that Yasser Arafat would reject his generous offers seven years ago at Camp David, but he put them out there because he realized that 33 years after the Six Day War, and 12 years after the first intifada, it was clear that the territories would explode again as the Palestinians would not accept Israeli rule. "We tried to prevent that and were willing to discuss far-reaching arrangements, as was done in 1947 [when Israel accepted the UN partition plan]," he said. Yet, Barak said that by going to Camp David, and offering some 97 percent of the territory and adjustments in Jerusalem, the world sided with Israel when the explosion came in September 2000, and the Israeli public was united and able to sustain losses of more than 1,000 people because it knew that it made a bona fide effort to forestall the outburst. Olmert seems to be going to Annapolis knowing that he has to go, that there will be a lot of smiles and handshakes and pomp and ceremony, but that at the end of the day - despite his comments that an agreement could be wrapped up in a year - it is likely little will change. But he can't not go. Not only is he going, but being the astute politician that he is, he is taking both Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni with him. Barak wants to be a part of the process, in no small part to "keep an eye on Olmert" so that he doesn't make too many concessions, so that he will be able to say he "prevented disaster." And Olmert needs Barak there for political support. Unlike Ariel Sharon, who went to Washington alone to discuss disengagement from Gaza - something he was able to do because he had widespread public support - Olmert realizes hat he can't go to such a meeting alone, and needs the backing of others. Lacking widespread support, it is important for him that Barak attends to give more legitimacy to the whole process. Political considerations also seem very much behind Olmert's decision to involve Livni, his potential rival for Kadima leadership, in the whole process. From Olmert's perspective, it is much better having Livni involved as head of the country's negotiating team, and therefore unable to criticize it from the outside, than outside the process endlessly sniping at it. Internal political considerations dictate that Olmert included both Barak and Livni in the delegation, and their presence there will impact on what is decided. But what is true of Israel is also true of the other participants -positions will be determined to a large extent by internal considerations. And it is by no means clear that internal considerations either among the Palestinians or the Arab world will allow the compromises the Palestinians will eventually need to make to render the Annapolis process a success.